Henry was a seemingly normal boy growing up in Hartford, Connecticut in the 1930’s. After a bicycle accident in childhood, he started to suffer from terrible seizures. Despite being on high levels of anti-convulsant medication, these seizures became severely debilitating into adulthood. You can imagine it might be hard to hold a job when you could start foaming at the mouth, biting your tongue and convulsing uncontrollably at any minute. As a solution to this, his neurosurgeon decided to drill into his skull and remove a melon ball sized chunk of neural tissue from the back of each side of his brain. Although the surgery succeeded in the goal of preventing seizures, it left Henry with a strange problem. For the rest of his life, he could no longer form new memories. If you have ever seen the movie Memento (and if you haven’t, you should), it was like the condition the main character suffers from. He could no longer remember when he had eaten; he would read the same magazine over and over again; he had to leave himself countless notes about everything. Every day, his doctor would have to introduce himself as if they had never met before, and he would react with the same distress each time he was informed that his father had died many years before. Despite this strange condition, Henry’s IQ was above average, and he was able to show evidence of other types of learning. He just could not remember having learned it. Henry Molaison died in 2008, and he is possibly one of the most studied and fascinating individuals in the history of neuroscience.
Over the last decade or two, the field of neuroscience has exploded. After the great success of the human genome project, many people considered the brain to be the final frontier, the last unexplored territory and even the holy grail of science. I became fascinated by the subject in college during my Introduction to Cognitive Science class where I was introduced to examples of strange neurological cases like Henry. I read about people who lost the ability to recognize faces, who could no longer perceive motion, or who had developed uncharacteristic obsessions with drawing or religion after brain injury. I became intrigued by how that clump of cells in your head gives rise to everything one experiences as well as the bizarre and surprising consequences that pop up when things go wrong. Since college, I have whole heartedly pursued the subject not only in my career but in my free time as well.
I have been known to devour books by Oliver Sacks and Eric Kandel and rave to people about the stories in them. I have become transfixed by stories of religious auditory hallucinations in temporal lobe epilepsy or a man who became obsessed with piano music after being struck by lightning. There is the example of the autistic savant, known as “the living camera,” who is able to draw the entirety of Rome from memory after flying over it in a helicopter, perfecting details down to the number of windows on each major building. The brain is a powerful and mysterious organ, and these stories of its strange intricacies will always fascinate me.
My academic training as a Neuroscientist requires that I complete a highly specialized project, which takes up the majority of my time, but the rigorous coursework, teaching and independent study required in the earlier years of the PhD have given me something arguably more valuable. They have taught me to speak science. Yes, science can often seem like it is its own language. I remember reading academic journal articles when I first decided to dive into research and thinking to myself “this may as well be written in french!” (a language that I definitely do not speak). After years of dedicated perseverance, I have transformed into a novice speaker of neuroscience. I now have the ability to read most any kind of journal article and understand the gist of what the scientists did and why it matters.
Once I reached this level, I discovered a whole body of work that often shifts my perspective on life. I am constantly amazed by new research and hot avenues of exploration in the field. When faced with conflict as a child, my mother always told me that I had a choice, that I could get upset or choose to do something more useful. At the time, I was not able to escape the grips of powerful emotion and dismissed the advice as empty words aimed to comfort, however, as I’ve grown up and used neuroscience to inform my approach to conflict, I have been able to better see the insight in her advice. I suppose I’m a bit biased, but I truly believe that knowledge of the emerging findings in neuroscience can inform your every day life, and how you view the world. It can empower you and allow you to see things more clearly. Charles Darwin said, “the highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.” I have found this incredibly powerful, and I want to share it with you.
Of course, the fun is always in sharing ideas and discussing them with others; however, with science, often times the language barrier becomes a problem and those who do not speak the language get left out. Academic papers contain jargon and require background knowledge, becoming inaccessible to those without it. I have sat through countless lectures at top universities and international conferences where I became lost and had to go back and find ways to teach myself the material. At first, I assumed it was because I was just not as bright or not able to keep up, but over the years I realized it was mainly due to bad teaching and ineffective communication. When I went through the material in a more accessible way, I realized how exciting it was. If only the lecturer had just said that!
My goal with Gray Matters is to shed this barrier completely by translating the science into more accessible nuggets that people can appreciate. I want to share my enthusiasm and show people why this subject is so amazing! Over the last few years, I have gained experience teaching neuroscience spanning from explaining a sheep’s brain to a fascinated 10 year old to demonstrating cell respiration to a high schooler to teaching cranial nerves to advanced graduate students. Despite the various ages and levels of my students, one thing always remains the same: the science needs to be translated. I have found that simple drawings, explanations and analogies have helped tremendously, and I hope to use these tools to communicate the newest and hottest topics in the field.
My aim is to make Gray Matters accessible to people from any background. I have friends who work in areas such as marketing, tech and even opera singing, but there is not one person who hasn’t found something I’ve told them about neuroscience relevant to their field and/or just plain cool. To my artistic friends, I send articles about creativity, genius, musical hallucinations, and using art in recovery; to my tech friends, I send articles about new devices, innovative technologies and the future of communication; to my doctor friends I send articles about the importance of treating the mind and body, new case studies and connections between the brain and other organs; to my friends in banking, I advise them to read Daniel Kahneman’s work and be cautious to avoid the pitfalls of loss aversion. There is something for everyone! Now, instead of pummeling friends and family with these little specialized tidbits, I thought I’d find a place to write them all down. That way, people can read them at their own leisure (or choose to opt out completely!). I hope that this blog will enrich your neuroscientific knowledge and that you can take it with you in your future endeavors , whatever they may be.